Mary Oliver’s Poems from 1963 to 1979

When I first looked at Mary Oliver’s New and Selected Poems, I was a little disappointed that the new poems were at the front of the book and the older poems at the end. While that’s convenient if you’re picking up a book by a familiar poet, it’s less convenient if you’ve just discovered a poet. Personally, I always want to read the earlier poems first because it seems helpful to me to see how a poet’s ideas develop. With that in mind, I started reading the end of her book first in hope’s of discovering basic themes that appear throughout her poetry.

Since some friends had noted that they didn’t particularly like her poetry, I was pleasantly surprised by how just how much I did like her poems. Her first poems remind me a lot of Thomas Hardy, or, considering her “Three Poems for James Wright,” her fellow Ohioan, Wright. Philosophically, she seems like a cross between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robinson Jeffers, especially in a poem like:


On winter’s margin, see the small birds now
With half-forged memories come flocking home
To gardens famous for their charity.
The green globe’s broken; vines like tangled veins
Hang at the entrance to the silent wood.

With half a loaf, I am the prince of crumbs;
By time snow’s down, the birds amassed will sing
Like children for their sire to walk abroad!
But what I love, is the gray stubborn hawk
Who floats alone beyond the frozen vines;
And what I dream of are the patient deer
Who stand on legs like reeds and drink the wind;-

They are what saves the world: who choose to grow
Thin to a starting point beyond this squalor.

Perhaps I was drawn to the first stanza of the poem because I love having a bird feeder in the winter even if it means traipsing outside in the snow or rain every day to refill it, while flocks of small birds sit in the plum tree waiting for me to leave. For a little while, I, too, feel like “the prince of crumbs.”

But it is really the second stanza, and even more, the third stanza, that make this poem memorable for me. The Emersonian view of nature is suddenly transformed into the darker view of nature, and man himself, projected in Robinson Jeffers’ “Hurt Hawk.” It’s suddenly as if the wrens betray their own nature in order to survive through man’s generosity, but the hawk circling all alone rejects man’s help and, in doing so, “saves the world,” or, at least saves it from man’s domination of nature.

“Entering The Kingdom” reminds me of Emerson’s famous “transparent eyeball,” though I much prefer Oliver’s metaphorical “lens of attention:”


The crows see me.
They stretch their glossy necks
In the tallest branches
Of green trees. I am
Possibly dangerous, I am
Entering the kingdom.

The dream of my life
Is to lie down by a slow river
And stare at the light in the trees-
To learn something by being nothing
A little while but the rich
Lens of attention.

But the crows puff their feathers and cry
Between me and the sun,
And I should go now.
They know me for what I am.
No dreamer,
No eater of leaves.

Crows are constant companions here at Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park, never letting you forget you’re an intruder, an outsider threatening what little wildlife manages to cling to existence in this little bit of Old Growth Forest preserved as a monument to what once was but can never truly be again.

And, though like Oliver, I often wish, and even attempt, to be one with nature, I, too, am forced to realize that it is little more than a dream, more fleeting than even the trees that disappear before my eyes. No matter how much we may wish otherwise, we are still outsiders, cut off from Nature, by our very nature, by our very ability to think, our ability to stand outside ourselves and observe nature.

Banished from this natural Garden of Eden, some seem bent on destroying the garden itself, while others of us dream of returning to a Oneness that is itself Edenic, risking constant banishment for a glimpse of that once and future kingdom.